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Sons and Mothers

Truly sons are a gift from the Lord,/ a blessing, the fruit of the womb.” Psalm 127:3

Today my only son is 10 years old. When I told an old friend yesterday that today was my son’s 10th birthday, his response was, “How traumatic!” He is the father of a two-year-old boy, so I guess 10 is a long way off, perhaps unimaginable to him. But he’s right: it is traumatic in some ways. Skippy is in an interesting place, standing with one foot in childhood and the other in boyhood.  It’s a twilight time for me as a mom. Things are changing, rapidly.

I love the fact that in many ways he is still “little,” happy, innocent, and free to do things that soon he will no longer want to do. On a recent family outing to a lovely park which had a babbling brook running through it, Skippy invited us to play “Pooh sticks” on the shady wooden bridge crossing the brook. He was very excited and said he’d show us how to play, that it was easy. And it was. (In case you’ve never experienced the rare pleasure of Pooh sticks on a shady bridge overlooking a gentle brook in the cool breeze with ducks standing by, here’s how Skippy explained it: You each choose a stick. Walk up to stand in the center of the bridge, looking over one side. On the count of “three” everyone drop their sticks into the water, then quick dash across to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick floats by first.) Such a simple game, such fun to play together. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing was seeing him so excited because he finally had the chance to play “real Pooh sticks,” something that until that moment, he’d only read about in A. A. Milne’s beloved children’s books about a silly old bear in the 100 Acre Wood…..I share this because it was a reminder to me that there will not be many more of these simple, innocent moments of childhood. It was a reminder to be grateful, and to be very present and aware of these moments, before they are gone for good.

God is merciful to me, because as he enters his 10th year of life, Skippy is still in love with Winnie-the-Pooh, talks regularly with his stuffed animal “friends,” wants to snuggle with me on the couch, and holds my hand wherever we go. He’ll still spend an ocassional afternoon watching Max and Ruby with me, sits enthralled while I read aloud to him, and enjoys looking at his picture books, even though he has “outgrown them”.  God knows, I want with all my heart to hang on to these moments with him — I’m absolutely not ready to let go of snuggling, not yet! He is my only living child — this is it for me, or at least it looks that way. I don’t have any more coming up behind him to fill in the gap of things he will soon be leaving behind.

But I know this is not fair to the boy he is becoming. I know I have to let him go. Already he is taller, his feet are bigger. His face is narrower, older, having lost the roundness that little children possess. The same with his fingers — not pudgy and cute any more, but longer, stronger. He’s more interested in Super Hero comics, likes to spend more time alone in his room, and is generally more mature in social interactions. He is so competent and can do many things for himself — he makes simple meals and tells me more and more often, “Don’t worry, Mom, I can handle it.” He still needs me, but in a very different way. And as much as it is difficult for me to let him go, I can also appreciate and admire how he is growing and the kind of person he is becoming. I can enjoy this in-between time of his childhood, with all of its different phases and accomplishments, like I have enjoyed all the others so far. But though I know this, it seems to me that a door is closing, a phase of the journey of motherhood is slowly coming to an end, and a new phase is beginning.

Skippy’s birth was both joy-filled and frightening. It was an event marked by loss, as though God were preparing me for something that back then I was not yet ready to understand. I still don’t understand it, but every year his birthday continues to be a strange emotional mixture of sadness and joy for me. He was born 6 weeks early and though there were no life-threatening complications, he spent his first week in the NICU. I left the hospital, a new mom, a first time mom, without my child and came home to an empty nursery. The elation of motherhood was tempered by this emotional trauma. Seven days later, on the day we were to bring him home for the first time, we were awakened by a telephone call telling us about the terrorist attacks on the East coast. It was 9/11. Grief-stricken for the people killed by this horrific event and their families, afraid and uncertain about what was going on, we soon learned that we were unable to get to our child — the freeway to the hospital 30 minutes from our home was shut down for hours because it passed by a major airport. Suddenly, we were united with others affected by this horrific event. We were helpless, powerless, and scared. The months after his birth and homecoming were extremely difficult. I felt guilty being happy when other had been so devastated. And I kept wondering what kind of world were we bringing this child in to? It is an understatement to say that everything surrounding the birth of my son was a challenge to a barely awakening faith.

As Skippy has grown, those early events surrounding his birth have made my heart wiser and more knowing. The losses I continue to experience as a mother are no less painful, but they are perhaps less surprising. I love being a mother, I love the gift of my child. But it would be a lie to say that this gift is not also full of heartbreak, sorrow, and loss for the things that are passing away. It is the gift of beauty, with thorns. I believe that the is an especially unique truth for the mothers of sons. While a daughter may remain close and perhaps become a “friend” in adulthood, a son is continually growing up and away from his mother.

My friend, Cathy, just recently saw her only son head off to college in Florida. He is now an entire continent away. When she asked me to pray for her son and their family, she said, “When times get frustrating with Skippy, imagine him leaving the state permanently and it might make the present frustration seem a bit smaller.” Cathy’s words hit home. In the day-to-day routine with all its attendant frustrations, I seldom think about the big picture. It is so easy to get caught up in the struggle of the moment, to get irritated by the little things. I do not often imagine my son grown, leaving. I do not often imagine never snuggling him, never holding his hand again…..I do not imagine him leaving for good. Cathy said that her son’s leaving, even though it was expected, even though she knew it would be hard, “felt like a death in the family” and gave her that feeling that life is fragile, and moments with our children precious. She said that,” Seeing his room filled with furniture and yet so empty is a strange experience.  It is also a time of looking back at all I didn’t do and that which I did — it is hard knowing I don’t have any do-overs, something else to remember when times are trying.” This is something I struggle with a lot — the feeling that I get one shot at this. Not in a way where I feel like everything depends on me; more like I have to be vigilant and do my very best the first time because, really, it’s the only time. Cathy’s experience, though I am 8-10 years from going through the same thing, still echoes the smaller, different losses I am experiencing now. We are like bookends, she and I, on two sides of a very similar experience.

Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-07930-CW, copyright Radiant Light, 2011

I find, as both I and my son get older, I am growing closer and closer to Blessed Mother.  She knows exactly everything I have gone through, what I am going through now, and how it will be later. She went through it all with her own Son. Her Son’s birth was also surrounded by trauma and uncertainty. She also experienced continually the “loss” of her child as He grew, pondering things in her heart, until one day He finally left. She understands from her own experience both the unique joy and sorrow of being the mother of a son. I find it is easier to bear the bittersweet experience of these emotions and the journey with her at my side, to talk to and to share with, to ask for her help and intercession both for Skippy and for me. And I can entrust her more and more with my own son’s care and safekeeping. She can be with him always, even and especially when I can’t. She can obtain for him the graces he needs to fulfill whatever mission God has planned for his life. She can help to repair my mistakes and to fill in the many gaps I leave. And she can keep our hearts united no matter how far away he goes. 

It is no coincidence that this month of September is dedicated to Mary, Mother of Sorrows and the faithful are encouraged to meditate on the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Mother. Here’s to the next 10 years of my life with Skippy. What a blessing and a privilege to be his mother. May God give me the grace to be more acutely present, to both the beauty and the thorns, of every passing moment of the remainder of his childhood and to enjoy it to the fullest.

There Are No Coincidences

This absolutely isn’t a political/editorial blog, so please bear with me as I share what may seem to be unusual thoughts. I can’t believe that I am the only person stunned by what seems to be an obvious connection to the death of Osama bin Laden yesterday (May 1) and the two significant events Catholics around the world were celebrating that same day: the Feast of the Divine Mercy and the beatification of our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. It also happened to be the first day of the month devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Isn’t it amazing that, after 10 years of searching for this elusive terrorist who wreaked such extreme havoc on 9/11 and who has continued to threaten America and the West repeatedly through Al-Qaeda, he should suddenly be found, isolated, and subsequently killed by U.S. forces on Divine Mercy Sunday, and on the day when the “mercy pope” was beatified? It is beyond the realm of coincidence in my mind. It seems to be clearly in the realm of divine providence. It is a sort of justice, also perhaps a gift of grace, but it is also a reminder and an opportunity to pray.

Of course, we can’t expect to hear anything about this connection in the secular media.  At the very end of his formal address  from the White House commenting on the operation that led to the death of bin Laden, President Obama at least alluded to the fact that God may have had some small role to play in the success of the mission to defeat bin Laden. But this was somewhat buried in the greater emphasis of the address on acknowledging the pride of our national identity. Clearly our success in this effort is attributed to WHO we are, and we are not a people beholden to anyone, not even God. To his credit, the president also asked that God bless the people and the nation of America. Indeed, we would all hope and pray that God would continue to bless America and her people. Let me be clear: there is no moral exoneration for the choice of evil as exhibited by bin Laden and other terrorists. However, in spite of everything that makes America great, our culture continues to deny the very existence of God through it policies and practices. It is no secret that our culture is anti-life. Amidst the devastating holocaust of abortion and its effects, the victimization of our children and families, as well as the increasing challenges to life at all levels in our nation, it is difficult to hide from the hypocrisy of standing before God and asking him to bless our nation and our people. As proud as I am of our servicemen and women and their selflessness, sacrifice, and courage in doing their duty, it is also difficult for me to be proud in general of our country and to hold my head up as our leaders assert that we are an example to be followed and emulated. In our ideals, this is most certainly true. But so often the ideal and the reality are diametrically opposed. We walk a very fine line on a very slippery slope…….

Our Lord told St. Faustina that “Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy” (Diary 300) On the feast of Divine Mercy, on the day of the beatification of the “Apostle of Mercy,” the death of Osama bin Laden is a reminder to me that our country needs God. We need to humble ourselves and acknowledge that every good thing and blessing we have here comes from Him and Him alone, not from who we are as Americans or from our prowess and determination. Perseverance and determination in the face of injustice and evil are positive and necessary traits; but they are God-given traits, and cultivated apart from humble faith and trust in God, they become simply another aspect of pride. Without God’s benevolence our country and our people would be nothing. In our time, when the machine of the culture of death is so hugely prevalent, that God should grant us release from the extreme threat of this terrorist on the day when we are called especially to venerate and glorify His mercy is extremely significant, perhaps miraculous. 

My 9-year-old son came home for the first time on 9/11, after spending a week in the NICU due to his premature birth. We couldn’t even get to him as the freeways near all airports were closed. It was the most frightening  experience of my life, and one of the most painful, to be helplessly separated from my son. Along with everyone else in the country, I mourned the loss of life from the horrific events of that day, and shared the intense stress and fear terrorism is specifically designed to instill in its victims. While I was happy to be a new  mother, I have to candidly state that I also wondered and worried about what kind of world my son had been born in to. My trust and confidence were shaken. The shadow of the devastating effects that clouded the day of my son’s homecoming have continued to haunt me over the last 10 years. Still, I did not feel happy when I heard the news that Osama Bin Laden was dead. I felt sober, like something had been finished, and just as immediately I saw the connection to the Feast of Mercy on which he died and was filled with a quiet, prayerful  awe. A sense that something significant had happened and that I needed to pay attention.

The Vatican’s official statement on the death of Osama bin Laden is a careful, sober, and pointed reminder of our collective responsibility: “This morning, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, P. Federico Lombardi, issued the following statement to reporters: Osama Bin Laden – as everyone knows – has had the gravest responsibility for spreading hatred and division among people, causing the deaths of countless people, and exploiting religion for this purpose. Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of everyone before God and man, and hopes and pledges that every event is not an opportunity for a further growth of hatred, but of peace.”

As a nation, we need to beg God for mercy, both for ourselves and for those who would do us harm. We need to pray that the many gifts we have been given as a country will be shared and used to show the light of truth to a world starving for beauty, mercy, and love. It is no coincidence that this much-hated and feared terrorist died on the Feast of Divine Mercy, for John Paul II also died on that feast day, six years ago. The great mercy pope — who publicly forgave the man who tried to assasinate him, who offered us all an example of mercy in action, and who spent his pontificate proclaiming the message of Divine Mercy — and the great unmerciful terrorist, who — as hard as it is to imagine or believe — was and is also beloved by God.

And that is the gift of beauty in the Divine Mercy message — God’s mercy is for all of us, no matter who we are, who we have been, or what we have done. It is for the most hardened sinners, whether they be individuals or entire nations. His mercy and compassion are inexhaustible, endless, without limit — an unfathomable abyss of love awaiting an encounter with each and every person, if only each one asks, acknowledges her need, for that mercy. Only God knows if Osama bin Laden was open to this gift of mercy at the end. May this event be a reminder to pray that God “look kindly upon us, and increase His mercy in us, that in difficult moments, we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence, submit ourselves to His holy will, which is love and mercy itself.” (Diary, 950)